Co-ordination, Collaboration and Co-operation
— the challenges of working together
When no-one is "in-charge"

UNEMPLOYMENT IS STILL the major social issue in New Zealand. It is what the 1994 Prime Ministerial Task Force described as "New Zealand’s greatest challenge". Creating "real jobs" was also the issue at the front of the 1998 Hikoi for Hope — with unemployment seen as the major reason for poverty in this land of plenty. The call for people and organisations to become more effective on these issues has been one of the key demands of the 1990s, and will continue to be so into the next century.

We sometimes forget that unemployment was once considered an extraordinary thing. We certainly have never talked so much about poverty in this country as we do today.

Twenty years ago, the idea that New Zealand’s largest religious denomination would walk the lengths of these islands to protest against poverty would have been unbelievable. Ten years ago, the picture of a former governor-general leading a call on parliament grounds that "enough is enough" ... would have been unimaginable.

When I first started working in the unemployment issue in the mid-70s, it was an issue that was considered an aberration of the way our economy was working, and we were hopeful that it would go away soon. At the time, there was increasing alarm as to the long-term effects that technological change and global commerce would be having on jobs ... but we felt we had the time to do something sensible about it.

By the early 80s, there was a public committee on unemployment in most towns and cities around New Zealand. When Labour came into government in 1984, concern about unemployment (then at 50,000 people) was such that it was declared "a national crisis". An employment summit of community and business leaders was held at the Beehive to develop a consensus on how to address the issue. At that time, we knew what we were facing, and we also knew that we had to work together to beat it.

But now, at the turn of the century, unemployment seems almost routine. The idea of "beating it" is no longer really on the agenda. Unemployment has become a part of the framework of economic management in this country — and in the global economy. Joblessness is seen by too many people as an inevitable by-product of the national competitive psyche that says there will be winners and losers — and this is seen as the best way to run our affairs.

Many in our communities have lost the capacity to see unemployment as a continuing central and critical issue ... let alone address it. This is despite the fact that the unemployment statistics are over four times the numbers of people out-of-work compared to a decade ago, when it was considered "a crisis".

But our world is very different today. The community groups of the 80s have either completely disappeared, or reinvented themselves as businesses which contract training and social services to government agencies. The government agencies themselves have been on a constant path of restructuring as the economic and social policies of the past fifteen years have pulled the Public Service to bits. And businesses and corporations continue to "re-engineer" their operations — downsizing and discarding people in the relentless pursuit of efficiency and market-share.

And we are no closer than we ever were to solving our unemployment problems. Politicians, government officials and community contractors may say they would wish to see an end to joblessness ... but their efforts so far have simply explained unemployment, or merely set up schemes which organise the unemployed.

Don’t get me wrong: there is certainly a great deal of important and effective work being done on these issues. When I do workshops around the country on employment and the future of work and income, I get to speak to many managers of government departments, local authorities and leaders of community-based agencies. They are proud of their front-line work in this field and the many daily successes they are achieving on a personal level, and they should be.

But while there has been tremendous improvement in the business and delivery of social services in the last decade ... it is also clear that the overall problem is just not going away.

As the managers and leaders share with me their strategic plans, their mission statements and their performance objectives and outcomes ... these front-line people still know that this economy is not creating enough jobs for people, and significant parts of our population are slipping into poverty, homelessness, ill-health, bitterness and despair.

These managers and leaders share with me stories of concern for the working futures of their own children. They share their fears for the nature of the society that we are leaving to the next generation. And, beyond the official explanations, they are still looking for answers and solutions ...

I HAVE OFTEN WRITTEN my view that it is a mistake for any politician, bureaucrat or community leader to tell us that they have the magic answer to unemployment. We would be deluding ourselves if we believed them.

To some extent, unemployment is a huge social issue in which no-one is "in-charge", and there is certainly isn’t any "one way" to solve it.

Unemployment stacks up alongside many of the great social issues of our time in which nobody really is in-charge of "the big picture". Sure, there are Ministers and Chief Executives ... but is anyone really in-charge? Is anyone really in-charge of the health system in this country? Is there anyone really in-charge of the education system?

No. Despite the posturing of various politicians and the solutioneering of departments and contractors ... it is very clear that there is no one person or agency at the helm of any authentic solution to these major public challenges.

It is almost like the big social issues that we wish to have some impact on have become so complex, with so many details within them, and you’ve got to know so much about everything and have effective relationships with so many people ... that we are kidding ourselves if any one individual or agency thinks they can do it all alone.

The agenda has changed. There is no organisation, community group, business or government department that has the legitimacy, intelligence or capacity to act alone on these major issues ... and still make substantial headway against them.

This could lead a perfectly rational person to feelings of cynicism and despair. But, after twenty years of involvement in social services, I have come to know that there are literally hundreds of worthwhile answers to unemployment and poverty in this country, and a tremendous amount of creativity still available to address these issues.

My perspective is to see the hundreds of individuals, businesses and agencies in this field that are each carrying a part of the solution. Perhaps they each hold 1% of the overall answer. The challenge before us is to learn the pragmatic skills of how to connect these pieces of the solution together — so that we all can be more effective in solving "the big picture".

We are not going to solve unemployment and create enough jobs for New Zealanders unless a great variety of organisations learn more effective ways of working together. The issues of unemployment and poverty today are calling out for leadership that has very different skills — the skills that can build collaborative action, and skills that can work across sectors and vested interests and achieve a common good.

The strategic question is this: How do we share power between all these groups, so that they can more effectively get on with their part of the solutions?

Just how we might start to answer this question ... is the subject of this paper.

Working for Taranaki

MY FIRST EXPERIENCE in collaborative action — meeting with people from other sectors in order to address unemployment — was with a committee called Work for Taranaki. It was established in 1989 by the Taranaki United Council in response to what its researchers were saying would be a worsening employment situation for local people.

Under the chairmanship of the Taranaki United Council chairman, Ross Allen, the group brought together employers, local body politicians and officials, the regional managers of the major government departments, community social service agencies, and representatives of unemployed people and beneficiaries.

It was interesting that this group met in the Civil Defence Headquarters, right in the heart of New Plymouth. This was a brand-new spacious building with phones and whiteboards everywhere ... all set up to respond to natural disasters.

Work for Taranaki was not facing a natural disaster, but a social and economic one. There weren’t the roofs being blown off houses as in the Cyclone Bola which had struck Taranaki the year before ... but we all knew the equally compelling reality that hundreds of Taranaki homes and families were being blown apart by chronic unemployment and growing poverty. The Civil Defence HQ therefore felt a very appropriate place to take initiative and to forge collaborative action that would make a difference.

The early meetings of this committee were full of enthusiasm. In fact it was remarkable to find the level of creativity and lively brainstorming amongst this varied and provincial group. In the first year, a 50-point plan for action was floated, public meetings were held, and submissions were made to government on the ever-changing diet of official programmes we were being offered.

In the next couple of years, however, this sense of hopefulness and initiative petered out. When it became clear that the key players with significant resources had their hands tied by policy decisions made elsewhere, the levels of frustration and hopelessness within the group began to rise.

The enthusiasms we shared faded into what some members chose to describe as "reality". The meetings became a theatre for posturing amongst very well-worn characters. There was patch-protection and cynicism and a gradual lowering of trust.

There were outbursts and outrage. One business development leader at a meeting described his complete dismay at what he had discovered was a tremendous amount of money and resources coming into Taranaki to address unemployment or to support beneficiaries. He could see there wasn’t much co-ordination of this taxpayer support ... but he also had to conclude that the Work for Taranaki meetings were not helping.

The main government participants found other "priorities", and the group started to lose a consistency of members turning up to the meetings. In the end, the TUC chairman put an end to his sponsorship of the committee, saying that we should leave these affairs " the professionals."

As I packed away my foot-thick file of papers from the meetings of Work for Taranaki, I shared a sense of defeat at the closure of this initiative. Where had we gone wrong?

At the time I was quick to blame the behaviour and the vested interests of many of the individuals involved. But really, this was no use.

I came to see that I was very much a part of the problems we had experienced. I had certainly played my own part in the posturing and patch-protection that was going on around the table. When I reviewed this three-year experiment, I found that I had learned that the call to "collaboration" was a very much deeper challenge than I had expected. And I had not expected it to be such a challenge to my own character.

I also learned that "co-operation" means much more than just getting a variety of people to sit in the same room for a couple of hours every month. I learned that in addressing the issues of "co-ordination", we cannot avoid facing the pragmatic issues of power and control of the choices and resources.

For all the worthiness of our goals, the Work for Taranaki experience taught me that our communities are wasting their time in creating these local action groups ... unless they also invest in the skills of how these people can work together more effectively.

For me, it was only then that I was ready to start exploring how to make just such an investment ...

THIS EXPERIENCE STARTED me on a journey of reading, study and research into the skills of how groups could become more effective in addressing unemployment and poverty. And this is a journey I am still undertaking.

To some extent, the last decade has been a good time to begin such an enquiry. There has been a virtual explosion of all sorts of seminars, books, and technologies inspiring groups to work together better. Much of this has been led by trainers in the corporate environment who have been promoting greater teamwork within business groups so they can "co-operate to compete". There have also been important insights gained from cross-cultural research, and the co-operative, peace and personal growth movements have all added their experiences to this pile.

It was during the year following the demise of Work for Taranaki that I came across some of the areas of research which struck a chord for me. I had traveled to America to study and write, and it was also a chance for me to reflect on the work I was doing on employment issues back in New Zealand. While I was there, a friend showed me some material by John Bryson and Barbara Crosby, two US academics who teach in the field of public policy. Their writings were part of a whole area of scholarship in public issues, particularly focussing on questions of how to operate in what they termed a "shared-power" world.

They defined this as a world where organisations "must share objectives, activities, resources, power and authority in order to achieve collective gains or minimise losses..." Their approach was certainly an eye-opener for me. And after my experiences with Work for Taranaki, I could immediately see how it could help my understanding of collaborative dynamics. I obtained a copy of the Bryson and Crosby book "Leadership for a Common Good — how to tackle problems in a shared-power world" and began to explore a series of models that addressed the issues of sharing power between groups.

I have been working with these models for a few years now, both in my consulting work and in my personal leadership within groups. My view of these metaphors have changed and developed, especially more recently as I have been working with this material within the Local Employment Co-ordination groups. And I expect these perceptions will continue to change.

The models don’t describe reality — they are simply imperfect metaphors which enable us to have a discussion on deeper and wider issues. The word model comes from its Latin roots in modulus and modus, meaning measure, rhythm and harmony. So perhaps these metaphors provide us an opportunity to give ourselves a small measure, and to sense the rhythms and harmonies of our behaviour.

When it comes to discussing issues of just how we can share power and control, inspire greater collaboration, and be more effective in all of this ... I have found these measures particularly useful.

Lets take a look at one model of how major social issues are addressed by various organisations:

Next: The shared-power world